Spanish Flu: A Warning from History

Two years ago his­to­ri­ans marked the 100th anniver­sary of the Span­ish Flu, a world­wide pan­dem­ic that seemed to be dis­ap­pear­ing down the mem­o­ry hole. Not so fast, said his­to­ri­ans, we need to remem­ber the hor­ror. Hap­py belat­ed anniver­sary, said 2020, hold my beer. And so here we are. As I write this, the Pres­i­dent wheezed through an Address to the Nation which calmed no fears and sent Dow futures tum­bling. I scrolled down my news feed to see that Tom Han­ks and his wife both have it. Our god is an amoral one, and its nood­ly appendages touch all.

So let’s put our cur­rent moment into per­spec­tive with this 10+ minute his­to­ry on the Span­ish Flu from Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty. Here are the num­bers: it killed 20 mil­lion peo­ple accord­ing to con­tem­po­rary accounts. Lat­er sci­en­tists and his­to­ri­ans revised that num­ber to some­where between 50 to 100 mil­lion.

“This virus killed more peo­ple in the first 25 weeks than HIV/AIDS has killed in 25 years,” says histo­ri­an of med­i­cine Dr. Mary Dob­son. And unlike our cur­rent COVID-19 strain, this strain of flu went after 20 to 40 year olds with a vengeance. The symp­toms were graph­ic and unpleasant–people drown­ing in their own phlegm, blood shoot­ing out of noses and ears, peo­ple drop­ping down dead in the street.

Where did it start? Cer­tain­ly not in Spain–it gained that nick­name because the first cas­es were record­ed in the Span­ish press. One the­o­ry is that it start­ed in Kansas and found its way over­seas, from bar­racks to the front­lines. It might has come from birds or pigs, but sci­en­tists still don’t know how it jumps from species to species and how it quick­ly evolves with­in humans to infect each oth­er.

Right now, it seems like COVID-19 can sub­side if coun­tries can work quick­ly, like in Chi­na. But his­to­ry has a warn­ing too. As Europe and Amer­i­ca cel­e­brat­ed Armistice Day at the end of the war, the flu seemed to be going away too. Instead it came roar­ing back in a sec­ond wave, dead­lier than the first.

Some famous folks who got the virus but sur­vived includ­ed movie stars Lil­lian Gish and Mary Pick­ford, right at the height of their fame; Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son, who was so out of it (though recov­er­ing) that some his­to­ri­ans blame the weak­ness­es in the Treaty of Ver­sailles on him. Artist Edvard Munch con­tract­ed it (which seems fit­ting, con­sid­er­ing his obses­sions) and paint­ed sev­er­al self-por­traits dur­ing his ill­ness. Ray­mond Chan­dler, Walt Dis­ney, Gre­ta Gar­bo, Franz Kaf­ka, Geor­gia O’Keeffe, and Kather­ine Anne Porter all sur­vived.

Oth­ers weren’t so lucky: painter of sen­su­ous, gold leaf paint­ings Gus­tav Klimt died from it, as did poet and pro­to-sur­re­al­ist Guil­laume Apol­li­naire, and artist Egon Schiele. (And so did Don­ald Trump’s grand­pa).

The Span­ish Flu nev­er real­ly went away. There were still cas­es in the ‘50s, but we humans evolved with it and it became a sea­son­al type of flu like many oth­ers. Flu virus­es con­stant­ly evolve and mutate, and that’s why it is very dif­fi­cult to cre­ate vac­cines that can stop them.

If you’ve read this far, one last thing: GO WASH YOUR HANDS AND STOP TOUCHING YOUR FACE!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bill Gates Describes His Biggest Fear: “I Rate the Chance of a Wide­spread Epi­dem­ic Far Worse Than Ebo­la at Well Over 50 Per­cent” (2015)

Hear the Sounds of World War I: A Gas Attack Record­ed on the Front Line, and the Moment the Armistice End­ed the War

Peter Jackson’s New Film on World War I Fea­tures Incred­i­ble Dig­i­tal­ly-Restored Footage From the Front Lines: Get a Glimpse

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (3)
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  • Judy Day says:

    I remem­ber sto­ries my Grand­moth­er told us. she was in Austin, Texss, peo­ple were dying so quick­ly that there were not enough peo­ple to come and pick up the bod­ies. Her
    neigh­bors across the street lost four mem­bers of their fam­i­ly in three days. The dead were wrapped in blan­kets and put on the porch until some­one could pick them up.
    Whole fam­i­lies were lost. There was no med­ical help for the flu. It was hard to believe
    until what is hap­pen­ing now. We can­not be to care­ful now! She had three chil­dren in the home and took in four more friends to care for. They all sur­vived. The Span­ish Flu
    was in 1918. When the bod­ies were picked up, a tag was attached with the name, age, address and date of death. The bod­ies were loaded on a wag­on and car­ried away.
    It sounds unre­al! One of her neigh­bors bled to death from a nose bleed.

  • Marsha says:

    Why does Bill Gates have any cred­i­bil­i­ty?

  • Online Library Telkom University says:

    thank you for your information,what’s next?

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